William Wirt on Thomas Jefferson's Voice

William Wirt American History Law and Politics Famous People Education Biographies

This image depicts a portrait engraving of William Wirt, circa 1807. It was created by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin.

William Wirt was America’s tenth Attorney General.  Also a biographer of Patrick Henry, Wirt made a comment about Thomas Jefferson’s voice (and his resulting difficulties engaging in public debate):

The only defect [Jefferson had] was a physical one:  he wanted volume and compass of voice, for a large deliberative assembly; and his voice ... instead of rising with his feelings and conceptions, sunk under their pressure, and became guttural and inarticulate.

The consciousness of this infirmity, repressed any attempt in a large body, in which he knew he must fail.  (From "Mr. Wirt's Eulogy on Jefferson and Adams," quoted in Eloquence of the United States compiled by Ebenezer Bancroft Williston, Volume 5, page 472.  Digitized by Google, the book was published by E. & H. Clark in 1827.)

In today's world of videos and audio recordings, we can "hear" the voices of famous people while they are alive and long after they have died. We do not have the luxury of hearing Tom Jefferson speak—we only have the power of his words, like those in the Declaration of Independence.


Given Tom Jefferson's public-speaking difficulties, do you think he could have succeeded in today's world as much as he succeeded in his own time and place? Why, or why not?

If Jefferson's speaking issues would have held him back, like they may have held him back in today's world, what does that tell us about how we judge other people?

If Jefferson had public-speaking issues, how can we explain his success as an American Founding Father?

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Feb 27, 2020

Media Credits

Image online, courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress.





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